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Rethinking Textile Carbon Footprint: Triggering Carbon Catastrophe or Fostering Green Planet?

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Sk Mohammad Raafi

Textile industries are in a race to meet consumers’ growing demands through unsustainable operations, forgetting the environmental balance. Ellen MacArthur foundation reported that, 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases was released from textile production in 2015, exceeding those of all international flights and maritime shipping in together. According to the statistics of ESRL’s Global Monitoring Laboratory of NOAA, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (414.38 ppm was reported in July 2020) has increased about 3.75% compared to the average CO2 concentration in 2015. Unless the textile industries amend its activities and continue to move unwisely then textiles could account for more than 25% of the carbon budget for a 2°C pathway by 2050.

Energy consumption and Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emissions hold a considerable attention of environmental sustainability. Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas etc. are getting exhausted speedily to mainly produce heat and electricity. Therefore, the proportion of GHGs (mostly carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons) is ever-increasing to cause global warming. As a consequence, the planet is already facing sharp climate changes, water-food scarcity, widespread diseases, wildlife extinction, ecological imbalance and so on.

Carbon dioxide is selected as the reference (GWP value is 1) to measure the contribution of other greenhouse gases to global warming. Carbon Footprint (CF) is a metric to measure the emissions of GHGs, caused directly or indirectly by an individual, organization, product or service and event which is expressed as a mass of CO2 equivalent (KgCO2e).

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Figure 1: Carbon Footprint Measuring Life Cycle Stages of a Product

Carbon Footprint from Fiber Production

Cotton belongs to vegetable origin and require intensive cultivation with water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Each year, about 200 thousand tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers are estimated to use for production of cotton. Thus, direct emission of GHGs takes place, besides fiber yield. Wool is obtained from sheeps and livestock’s belching & gas passing is a major source of agricultural methane gas emissions.

Unsustainable and chemical-hungry traditional production methods of viscose rayon use carbon-disulfide, sulfuric acid which in turn releases greenhouse gases. Though, leading viscose fiber manufacturer ‘Lenzing Group’ is committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% within the year 2030.

The scenario is quite scary in case of synthetic fibers like polyester, spandex, and nylon as they cause severe depletion of fossil resources than natural fibers. Around 342 million barrels of oil is spent every year to produce those synthetic textile fibers. The monomer- adipic acid which is used to form the nylon 6,6 polymer, generates nitrous oxide on the way of its production. N2O is 310 times more destructive than carbon dioxide and responsible for the destruction of ozone layer.

McKinsey analysis determined GHG emissions associated with cotton, plastic-based fibers and other fibers production as 4.7 kg CO2e/ kg fiber, 11.9 kg CO2e/ kg fiber and 4.7 kg CO2e/ kg fiber respectively.

Textile Processing Related Carbon Emissions

Textile industry is one of the most complicated industries in terms of product and process variety. Major textile operations like spinning, weaving or knitting, dyeing, finishing, apparel assembling etc. left behind a massive carbon footprint. Electricity, heat, steam, compressed air etc. utilities find their application to run machineries and equipments in these sections.

Spinning industries consume most electricity (around 40%) compared to weaving and wet processing. Besides driving machineries, electricity is a vital resource to lighting, humidification also. Case studies conducted by the Georgia Technical Institute on air-jet looms revealed that reducing air leakage from 12% to 6% can result in an expected electricity cost saving of 440 thousand USD annually for a facility operating 500 weaving machines.

Steam generators or boilers are responsible for high CO2 emission. Chemical processing mainly requires thermal energy for increasing the temperature of water (mainly in dyeing) and drying textiles. A considerable share of thermal energy in a dyeing plant is lost through wastewater, heat released from equipments, exhaust gas, evaporation from liquid surfaces, un-recovered condensate, during condensate recovery, and at the time of product drying.

Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions from post-manufacturing operations like packaging, transportation from producer to buyer and distribution to retail stores can’t be ignored. Significant reduction can be made just by changing the transportation mode from road to rail and from plane to ship, where possible.

Consumer Oriented Contribution to CF

Fast fashion and global consumption of textiles wasn’t acute 30 years ago. In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made it much easier to import clothing by closing down a quota system that had limited the number of items that could enter the U.S.A. This model has given birth to quick, cheap, and disposable trendy clothes. Retail giants are now seen to compete with each other in launching faster fashion trends. A study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that, the average number of times a garment is worn before it comes to the end of life, has decreased by 36 per cent compared to around 15 years ago. The average American throws away 80 lbs of clothes annually. That’s almost one garbage truck of clothes being burnt or sent to landfills every second! It is anticipated that some garments are discarded just after 7 to 10 wears.

Less than 1 % of used clothing is recycled into new garments which indicate that, negligible proportion of consumed clothing is hardly recycled and re-used. An assumed 500 billion USD monetary value is lost every year due to this unsustainable take-make-dispose model. Although proper recycling is a challenging and tedious job due to blend of fibers, fixed dyes-chemicals, torn garments, separation of button-zippers etc., approximately 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within a year of production and ended in landfill or incineration. Washing garments in use phase is a major contributor to life cycle GHG impacts and in most studies, the figure cuts out as 40-80%.

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(Data Source: UNFCC; ‘Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability’ published by the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee; ‘A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future’ published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Strategically Mitigating Carbon Footprint

Though it is not easy to transform the existing facilities, but only the mindset of doing good for both ourselves and the environment for long-term outcome would be sufficient to undertake such change. But the situation and urgency should be felt by all parties including manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Manufacturers wouldn’t like to bear the cost of sustainable development without additional profit from retailers. And retailers wouldn’t do so willingly unless consumers force them to bring eco-friendly products with transparency and accountability throughout the operations.

Fiber Production Stage Strategies

Comfortable cotton fibers should be organically grown. Despite of comparatively high price of ‘BCI’ cotton, increased market demand can play vital role to cultivate this almost pesticide & chemical free cotton.

Other environmental friendly, suitable, promising fibers like hemp, bamboo, soybean etc. should be promoted to reduce load on traditional cotton, flax, wool, polyester etc. fibers. Those less energy consumed and low carbon emitting fibers can be furnished to support technical textiles also.

Processing Based Possibilities

The reduction of carbon footprint in operation processes can be further divided into four (4) classes for clear understanding:

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Figure 2: Few Ways to Reduce CF in Manufacturing Operations

Necessary Measures in Use and Disposal Phase

Firstly, consumers are needed to be aware of their buying decisions and should be inspired to know the impact of their purchased clothes on environment, specially concerning the carbon footprint. WRAP exposed that expanding the active use of an article just by nine (9) months, approximately 20-30% carbon, water and waste footprint can be reduced. Eco-design of washing machines, reduced frequency of washing, less polluting detergents can contribute to mitigate carbon footprint during use phase.

The rein of fast fashion should be pulled and substituted with relaxed fashion which has to prove high quality as well as longer product life. This increased clothing utilization could be accelerated with subscription based business models. Many sustainable apparel retailers are recycling disposed garments and enabling that to go for additional use.

The recycling of synthetic fibers and making fibers from left plastic goods mostly like PET bottles, polythenes and polypropylene should be increased vigorously. This closed loop approach is bestowed with several benefits- lower emission than virgin fibers, shortens distance for sourcing, transportation etc., creates less waste and so on.

Legislative Actions

Greenhouse gases can’t be confined within the boundary of emitting nations. Wherever it is released, the severity is faced by the world as a whole. So, strict execution of appropriate rules and regulations of all countries can collectively reduce the dangerous impact of carbon emissions. Public authorities should undergo Green Public Procurement (GPP) so that goods or services can be sourced in the country at reduced environmental impacts. Already several rules have been set by some nations.

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Figure 3: Monetary Compensations to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Carbon tax is a type of pollution tax which is charged against per ton of carbon equivalent emission. This straightforward and stable tax which is determined by the government, offers assurance to industries’ investment decisions independent of fluctuating regulatory costs. Moreover, if reduction of emission is cheaper than expected then this tax provides a persistent price signal.

Carbon offsetting is a voluntary policy, measured by ton of CO2 equivalent emissions where a business decides to invest in projects like planting trees (to develop green carbon), building renewable energies, avoiding deforestation etc. in other entities. When an industry fails to reduce emissions directly in its premises after whole-hearted efforts and wants to cooperate globally then it supports such projects in other facilities outside of the factory boundary. This efficient method helps to reduce the emission even outside of any regulatory requirements.

The concept of carbon credits has also appeared in existence following the increasing necessity to control emissions. Carbon credit (also known as carbon ‘cap & trade’) is a form of a tradable greenhouse gas emission reduction unit which is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases. In this system, the government sets the maximum amount of emission firstly and then sells or issues obligatory permits to industries to emit the greenhouse gases.

Industries try to reduce their emissions at less cost than paying the carbon price so that the remaining permits can be sold to other industries who find it difficult to lower carbon emission than their expectations. Therefore, some opportunities are established by the industry (seller) and as a whole the emission is get reduced at the lowest possible cost.

Finally, new ray of hope has already started to shine across the textile industry but it will enlighten the whole sector when mass implementation of lessening carbon footprint as well as other sustainable developments can be ensured.

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